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— What is an atheist doing in the heart of Michigan's Bible Belt?

Raising hell, for one thing.

Mitch Kahle, who moved to this lakefront community in western Michigan a year ago, has quickly made his presence felt.

He convinced Ottawa County to remove a religious sign from a county park, persuaded Grand Haven to turn a 48-foot cross on city land into an anchor, and got two school districts to stop a minister from continuing to hold lunchtime programs at schools.

On Tuesday, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners will decide whether to return the sign bearing Psalm 19:1 to Hager Park near Jenison.

Far from turning the other cheek, conservative churches and their members have railed against Kahle at emotional City Council meetings and overflowing forums.

"I've been called every name in the book," said Kahle.

He has received hate mail and death threats, and been cursed at by Christians.

From pulpits to social media, he has been compared to a terrorist, Hitler, vampire, demon and even the dark prince himself, Satan.

"How is it that a dirtbag can come into a community and cause so much controversy and destruction?" asked Rick Phillips, 59, a Spring Lake real estate broker who organized a rally to support the cross last year. "These carpetbaggers need to be driven from our community."

Residents also hope to recall one of the Grand Haven council members who voted earlier this month to remove the cross. The ballot language was approved by county officials Thursday, allowing them to petition for a recall election against Councilman Bob Monetza.

Kahle, 52, has contributed to the fire and brimstone debate with comments just as incendiary as those of his foes.

He has blamed religion for most of the world's problems, equated it with racism and child abuse, and compared it unfavorably with astrology, palm reading and alien abduction claims.

"Show me an evangelical Christian organization and I'll show you a fraud," he wrote on a science education group website in 2010.

"They are all in it for the money, and power over helpless and desperate people."

Despite his inflammatory remarks, Kahle is a happy warrior, a true believer with a sense of humor, friends said.

The scourge of Nativity scenes is a provocateur who relishes nothing more than a good debate.

When Grand Haven originally balked at removing the cross, saying city land could be used to support any cause, Kahle proposed banners espousing atheism, abortion and Festivus, a make-believe holiday featured on the TV series "Seinfeld."

Brian Plescher, a former Pentecostal Christian who has joined Kahle on several of his campaigns, said Kahle is teaching him how to be an activist.

"He's gotten a lot done in a short time," said Plescher, 47, of Grand Haven Township. "He has the ability to be direct, to cut through a lot of unnecessary dialogue to make a point."

Conservative Christians are convinced Kahle came to God's country to persecute them, but Kahle said the truth is more mundane.

He and his longtime girlfriend, Holly Huber, are Michigan natives with family in the state. After living in Hawaii for 21 years, they returned here for personal reasons, he said.

Kahle, a college dropout, has owned a series of technology companies that did everything from designing websites to producing videos.

Getting started in Hawaii

He was a veteran of church-state separation wars long before he returned to Michigan.

In Hawaii, he took on the Army, Hawaii Senate, Honolulu City Hall and dozens of other institutions.

More often than not, he won.

He got the Army to remove a 37-foot cross from a barracks, the Senate to stop opening sessions with an invocation and Honolulu to erase church descriptions from its website.

His argument was always the same: the First Amendment prohibits government from promoting religion.

During his high-profile campaigns, Kahle became synonymous with the church-state separation issue in Hawaii. The mayor of Honolulu called him "the Grinch who stole Christmas."

"I'm what's known as a public troublemaker," Kahle said while receiving the 2011 Freethinker of the Year Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Keeping religion out of government wasn't the first cause he has embraced.

When he moved to Hawaii in 1992, the state was already embroiled in the debate over gay marriage.

A frequent advocate of women's and animal rights, Kahle said he was immediately drawn to the gay rights issue and testified before the state legislature.

Park sign under discussion

In Kahle's latest battle, the Hager Park sign was removed Dec. 1, the same day he complained to the county.

He had learned about it from two residents who felt it didn't belong in a public park.

The sign, which said "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork," was erected in 1947 at the behest of a businessman who had donated the land for the park.

After a public furor over its removal, the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners discussed the issue during a monthly meeting and work session earlier this month.

During the two sessions, 15 people spoke about the sign, virtually all wanting it to be returned. One compared its removal to the Holocaust. Another worried the next step would be the county supporting gay marriage.

One of dozens of people writing letters of complaint said its removal was an omen that an end-times prophecy was coming true.

"Everybody knows this is a Christian place, not a Muslim place, not a Hindu place," Matt Kooienga, associate pastor of Harvest Baptist Church in Hudsonville, said during the Jan. 13 work session. "We don't have to lock our doors. The reason for that is we're Christians."

Expanding his fight

The Hager Park sign and the Grand Haven cross, raised in 1962, have been part of many residents' lives since childhood.

Some feel like a part of themselves has been ripped away. Others feel like religion itself is under attack.

An online petition to return the sign has been signed by 1,291 people. A Facebook page to return the cross has 13,100 supporters.

"Kahle is an agent of hate," said Brandon Hall, 26, a Grand Haven resident who is leading the recall against Monetza. "He's a belligerent bully who is trying to bring his disturbing, hateful agenda to Grand Haven."

While Kahle sometimes seems like the lone voice objecting to the religious symbols, some residents agree the objects have no place on public property.

"The law is clear. It's not allowed," said Bud Stern, a Grand Rapids retiree.

Kahle, who lives within a mile of 10 churches, isn't worried about being outnumbered.

In fact, he may just be warming up.

He and supporters recently created a group that will take up other liberal causes around the state.

As the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists becomes better known, Kahle expects to be contacted more and more about various issues.

When he is, he'll jump right in, he said.

"I've been doing this long enough that I've grown a pretty thick skin."

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

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